A 68-year-old woman who had a heart attack while alone at her home rang the Welsh Ambulance Service and said she was told they could not help her.
Dot Clarke, a care home nurse from Blackwood in Caerphilly borough, says she was left “in disbelief and terrified” at the ordeal on December 18.
“I was home alone, my husband was out at work and I’d got up to work my night shift,” she told WalesOnline from her home where she is now likely to stay for some time. She doesn’t know whether she will ever be able to return to her dream job nursing.
She says if she didn’t know the early signs of a heart attack due to her day job she thinks she could be dead.
“First of all I felt like I had pulled a muscle in my arm, so I put some pain relief gel on,” she recalled.
“But then the pain went right down my arm and then I felt it down my neck and in my chest, and I realised what it was. It was excruciating. I’ve nursed coronary patients before but I never knew the pain was that bad.
“I rang 999 and told them ‘I’m a nurse, I know things are in a bad way, I know I’m having a heart attack’. The woman on the phone said ‘I’m sorry there are no ambulances available’.
“I said ‘what am I supposed to do, die? I’m on my own.’ I just couldn’t believe it. I know there are ambulances waiting in A&E car parks because there is nowhere else to go. I have residents in my care home waiting up to 10 hours for an ambulance - but I didn’t know it was anywhere near as bad as this. I know a heart attack is a category one priority.”
Dot says she was advised by the ambulance service to get a neighbour or relative to give her a lift to the Grange Hospital near Cwmbran - which doesn’t have a specialist cardiology department that works out of hours, Dot was told.
“I had to ring my son who drove like a mad man from Deri and then drove me to the Grange, as we were advised,” Dot explained. “My son had nothing there if I had worsened in the car - there was no defibrillator.
“We got to A&E and swung into a space in front of the building, before a parking attendant came and told us to move the car. My son had to park further away from the building and wheel me in himself while I was doubled over in pain.”
Dot’s grandson says when his father and grandmother got to the Grange there “must have been 15 or 16 ambulances parked up outside” with patients waiting for treatment.
Earlier this week a spokesman for the Aneurin Bevan health board which covers Gwent said each hospital was under significant strain due to staff sickness.
"Like the rest of Wales and the UK, we are experiencing higher than normal staff sickness levels due to the rise in Covid-19 cases in the community,” they said.
“The positivity rate of those people tested for Covid-19 in the health board area is at 48.6% over the past seven days – an increase of 22.5% in comparison to the previous seven days.
"Because of staff absences, combined with an extraordinarily high demand for our services, we have had to postpone some elective procedures, but all clinically urgent surgery has continued as normal.
"It is inevitable that if Covid-19 cases continue to rise, there will be more disruption to our services and we are reviewing this situation on a daily basis.
“We currently have more than 100 patients in our hospitals with Covid-19 and this number has almost doubled in the past week.”
Dot continued: “It was an hour before I had an ECG and then a nurse came and told me I’d had a heart attack, which I already knew.
“We were then told the cardiac department at the Grange was only open Monday to Friday nine until five.
“An ambulance took me to the Heath for surgery. So within three hours from when I got to the Grange I was finally where I needed to be.
“They wheeled me straight into theatre at the Heath and I had a stent put in. I can’t fault the team at the Heath, they were excellent.”
Dot left hospital a couple of days before Christmas and is now recovering at home while awaiting bypass surgery which she will have at Llandough hospital.
Reflecting on her ordeal, Dot added: “If my son hadn’t raced to me and took me to hospital I’d have been dead.
“While we were on our way to the Heath at 10pm - four hours after I called - the ambulance service rang to say they’d arrived at my house. I’m sure I’d have been gone by then.
“I’m so worried about others who didn’t have that early knowledge that I did about cardiac.”
Jon Edwards, the Welsh Ambulance Service’s Assistant Director of Operations said Dot’s experience was a “reflection of extreme pressures” facing the service.
“We are truly sorry to hear about Mrs Clarke’s experience, which is absolutely not the service we want to provide for patients, let alone high priority patients,” he said.
“Mrs Clarke’s experience is a reflection of the extreme pressures across the entire urgent and emergency care system in recent weeks.
“Issues elsewhere in NHS Wales – like delayed discharges, which lengthen ambulance waits at the ‘front door’ of the Emergency Department – have a direct consequence for us because fewer ambulances are available to respond to patients in the community.
“Coupled with staff absence exacerbated by Covid-19 and a higher volume of calls, our ability to get to patients quickly has been significantly hampered.
“It’s as frustrating for crews as it is for patients, and we understand how distressing this would have been for Mrs Clarke and her loved ones.
“At times when demand outstrips the available supply of ambulances and lengthy response delays occur it may be better, balancing all the risks, for the patient to make their own way to the emergency department if they are able.
“We would invite Mrs Clarke to contact us directly so that we can better understand her concerns and establish a full sequence of events, but in the meantime hope that she is making a continued good recovery.”